Two recent federal court rulings highlight the extent to which our federal sentencing rules and policies are broken, says CBS legal analyst Andrew Cohen on WashingtonPost.com. He says the issue will be “A-list materials for judges, lawyers and legislators looking for ways to fix the problem.” Last month, U.S. District Court Judge William G. Young in Boston issued a 125-page ruling on what is wrong with federal sentencing law, why this is so, and what judges and elected officials can and should do about it. A few days later, a divided 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a capital sentence for Jason Getsy, concluding that his punishment in Ohio courts was “arbitrary” and unfair and thus a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual” punishment.
The two rulings represent the sorry state of the art in an area of the law that the Supreme Court tried to revamp last year when it held unconstitutional the mandatory nature of the federal sentencing guidelines. Both cases focus primarily upon plea bargains and their corrosive impact upon fairness in federal sentences. Young argues that “juries can and should perform” a fact-finding role during criminal sentencing both as a constitutional requirement and a matter of practicality. In the Getsy case, the middle-of-the-road 6th Circuit tossed his death penalty because it was troubled by the fact that he had received a capital sentence when his three co-conspirators in the murder-for-hire plot received either lighter sentences or verdicts that were inconsistent with the one that Getsy had received. Both cases make the same point, says Cohen: “the system is still terribly broken.”